Alpaca Buying Guide, Fibre Micron Testing,
If you are considering alpaca farming, first of all, learn all you can and educate yourself about alpacas, to find out if they really are the animals for you. Read books, look at websites based here and abroad, join the British Alpaca Society and go on a training course.
Visit alpaca farms and ask yourself:
- Is the farm tidy, organised and clean?
- Are the alpacas you are viewing in a separate small area for you to view and handle?
- Does the breeder know the individual animals and their characters? It’s helpful if they do.
- Note your first impressions: Do the alpacas look alert and healthy?
Look for straight legs
A vertical line from the shoulder passing through the knee and down to the ground through the toes on the front legs and a line passing through the hock joint to the ground behind the foot on the back leg. An alpaca standing correctly should have an upright, squarish look. Toes should be forward facing, neat with strong toenails. Neck length should be around two-thirds the length of the back and the leg length and neck length about the same. Look for a compact, wedge-shaped muzzle; upright spear-shaped ears and bright, responsive dark (not blue) eyes. The upper dental pad should extend no more than a few millimetres beyond the lower teeth at the front of the mouth. Proper alignment of the teeth and dental pad ensures the optimum tooth length for the efficient gathering and mastication of food.
Have a good look and feel of the alpaca’s fleece.
The character of the fleece indicates quality of breeding and health: How does the fleece feel to the hand? Soft? Coarse? Silky? Full? Fineness of fleece can be verified with a fibre micron test of which the breeder should have a record. Part the fleece with both hands - is there good crimp (huacaya) – the crinkle-like structure up each hair- tightest at the base? If your hand feels empty with a handful of fleece, the alpaca has a light fleece, if it feels full, the fleece is dense. The amount of skin visible and the number of fibres growing out per unit area will give an indication of density. Is there any lustre, or shine (more important with suris) in the fleece? Is the fleece coverage uniform from the topknot to the legs? Assessing and feeling many fleeces educates your eye to a good one.
Ask if you can see the alpaca's sire and dam or any progeny.
Depending on the age of the animal, ask if you can see it’s parents or any progeny. Look at the individual records, for age, birthing, vaccination and worming.
Make sure the alpacas are registered – never buy an unregistered alpaca.
If buying alpaca geldings as guard animals for lambing sheep, be aware that not all geldings are suited to the job. Geldings for sheep work need to already possess protective/guarding qualities. One of our geldings lies outside the shelter, guarding, looking alert and sounding the alarm at the slightest provocation. Another gelding finds the softest bed at the back of the shelter in amongst all the females and takes no responsibility for anything. A male alpaca that is gelded and is two to three years old may be more suited. We have also observed five of our maidens working as a team when two foxes were in their field, leaving Mothers behind to care for youngsters.
Having written the above, choosing an alpaca is a subjective point; some people like well-fibred faces in their alpacas, others prefer a cleaner look. No alpaca will be perfect and one has to assess what suits ones situation. For instance a proven mother, even if she does have a coarser fleece, who pops out her cria with the minimum of fuss every year is invaluable at giving you the confidence boost you need with your new alpaca herd. It would be easy if you had £40,000 in your pocket to buy and import alpacas straight from some of the best breeders in the world. Your purchased alpacas of excellence and uniformity give you little to aim for. Most of the fun in alpaca breeding is assessing your new herd’s characteristics and *choosing a stud male to complement your females - improving their cria and fleece and waiting to see which, of a myriad of colours your female may give you.
Alpacas at their new home.
Alpacas that arrive at a new home that has not grazed alpacas before and therefore has no familiar smells, do take time to settle in. They don’t just adapt within a matter of days like horses. Take some manure home with you on a visit to your alpaca’s previous home and place it in an area you would prefer them to use – it doesn’t always work but at least they may be comforted by smelling familiar smells when they come across the manure. Being more closely linked with their wild predecessors alpacas need patience and time to accept their new home and owners. They have close links with their previous owners and particularly with other members of their herd that they may have been separated from.
Finally female alpacas need the companionship and support structure that only other adult females can offer, not geldings. Two pregnant females (three is kinder and better) and a gelding to accompany young boys is the ideal choice. http://www.fowberry-alpacas.com/for_sale
*Resist being tempted by a phenotypically perfect stud male.
Phenotype refers to the physical appearance of the alpaca – it’s conformation and fleece. There is no guarantee that he will throw cria like himself. Genotype goes to the essence of the alpaca, and refers to it’s genetic make-up. It is judged through the traits he puts into his cria. Value genotype and view a prospective stud male’s previous cria first before choosing him for your females.
Fibre Micron Test
A fibre micron test is undertaken to measure the fineness of an alpaca’s fleece. To analyse the histogram, firstly the Average Fibre Diameter (AFD) shows the fibre diameter in microns (a micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre), Standard Deviation (SD) is a term representing an average of individual deviations from the mean or AFD. In other words the smaller the Standard Deviation, the more uniform the fibres. SD is the most stable of variability measures and is used in the calculation of other fibre statistics such as the Coefficient of Variation (CV).The Coefficient of Variation is the Standard Deviation divided by the Average Fibre Diameter multiplied by 100 and reported as a percentage. The percentage of fibre greater than 30 microns is documented to show the amount of coarser medulated fibre that can determine the final use of the fibre. ‘Prickle’ factor is the scratchiness in clothes associated with coarser fibres over 30 microns. The histogram represents the quality of the fleece at the time of sampling.
It would be a mistake to make judgements of an alpaca solely on a histogram of it’s fleece. For instance a sample sheared a couple of centimetres from the skin may result in a difference of five microns; if the alpaca has had a change of diet during the previous years fleece growth this will affect the micron count, as will environmental factors such as weather, health, stress and pregnancy/lactating demands. Micron counts, usually, but not always, increase with the age of the animal, so the three main factors are age, sex and level of nutrition.
Although fibre micron testing is a useful genetic selection tool,it should be used in conjunction with fibre handling and visual appraisal of all the components that make up an excellent fleece: handle/softness, fineness/uniformity of micron, density, lock formation (suri), crimp (huacaya), length and colour consistency, lustre (suri), brightness (huacaya) and lack of medulation. An alpaca with a very low micron count is not automatically a superior animal - remember the environmental factors. Some alpacas that have a difficult and tenuous start in life and are therefore smaller than average sometimes have these lower micron counts. Assess the whole alpaca.
Usage of processed fleece:
- < 20 microns (Royal alpaca) - pashmina-type scarves, vests
- 20 - 23 microns (baby alpaca) - fine knitwear, lightweight worsted material
- 23 - 26 microns - worsted outerwear - jackets, suits, medium weight knitting yarn
- 26 - 29 microns - knitting yarns, rugs, blankets, interior products
- >30 microns - bags, interior furnishings, carpets
Postscript: The whole of the Peruvian alpaca fibre processing business - the biggest supplier in the world is dependant upon the fingers of the Peruvian women who grade and sort it!